Freeze treatment for lung cancers - promising and less invasive

Doctors in the UK are using a probe that freezes tumours at temperatures of -190°C to treat lung cancer in patients who otherwise could not have surgery.

Lung cancer affects about 37,000 people in the UK.

As a rule surgeons aim to cut out the cancer but this is not always possible, especially if the patient is frail.

By using a special probe which when inserted into the tumour freezes it and turns the tumour into an ice-ball, surgeons at the Harefield Hospital in Middlesex have successfully treated 16 patients, seven of whom had the operation over a year ago and are still disease free

Mr Omar Maiwand, the surgeon who carried out the operations, said about 2,000 lung cancer patients a year in the UK would be eligible for this treatment.

Maiwand says the removal of the lung is the preferred treatment for patients with early stage lung cancer but for about 20% of these patients removing the diseased lung is not an option as it leaves them with severe breathing problems and a poor quality of life.

The cryosurgery procedure is far less damaging to the lung, and involves making a cut of about 12cm in the chest wall so the probe can be advanced directly onto the tumour.

Liquid nitrogen is used as a coolant to freeze the tumour, which then disintegrates within the body over the next three to six months, which the scientists do not believe is a danger.

To date patients have had good results.

The surgery is less invasive than the conventional surgery and the recovery time is typically shorter, patients treated with the direct pulmonary cryosurgery can go home after four days.

Although cryosurgery is not a new technique and has been used on other organs and tissues in the body, the Harefield team believe they are the first to use it in this way to treat lung cancer and are extremely encouraged by the results.

According to Mr Maiwand the ideal patient is one who has an early cancer but with poor lung function.

Dr Siow Ming Lee, lung cancer expert from Cancer Research UK, says the approach is of interest for patients who are not considered suitable for surgery because their tumours are more advanced than expected.

He does note however, that this is a small study and further studies are needed to clarify the role of cryosurgery versus the conventional approach of radiotherapy and chemotherapy, before it can be recommended for patients whose tumours are found to be inoperable.

More information and advice about the surgery can be obtained form the Royal Brompton and Harefield NHS Trust.

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